The importance of Sign Languages

With the International Day of Sign Languages coming up on 23 September, we asked Kelly Shoecraft, an Applied Linguist in Learning Futures and Griffith Institute of Educational Research, to give us some background to the importance of this day. With the help of a few key members of the Griffith Deaf community, including Dr. Riona Tindal (Senior Disability Advisor), Cathy Easte (Manager of Student Disability and Accessibility) and some Griffith researchers focused on exploring the significance of sign languages, she has kindly produced the article below.

What is the day about?:

‘This day is about recognising that access to sign language is a basic human right for a Deaf person, for without it, we simply can’t easily do a lot of things that hearing people take for granted. This includes access to the language, access to education, information, social interaction, development of self-identify, and awareness of own self in the community.’

Dr. Riona Tindal, a Senior Disability Advisor at Griffith and a member of the Deaf community

Knowledge about sign languages:

The unique language used in the Australian Deaf community is Auslan – which is not the same as English.  Riona said, ‘Auslan relies on facial expressions with its own lexicon structure, is very visual and rich with its descriptive construction.’  She explained that ‘most of the Auslan that you see in every day at work or community, is the interchange of the Auslan and spoken English, but in the Deaf communities, Auslan is quite different and often very much expressive and a very rich language. Yes, Deaf people vary the language according to whom they are communicating with at the time.’

‘There are many misconceptions about signed languages around the world. Many people do not realise that signed languages are unrelated to spoken languages and that they are very diverse. There are hundreds of sign languages used by deaf and hearing people around the world. Signed languages belong to language families that are completely separate to spoken language families. American Sign Language and Thai Sign Language, for example, are very closely related, but they are unrelated to Auslan and British Sign Language.’

Dr Sam Rarrick, Griffith University linguist

Lisa Petersen, a doctoral student at Griffith University whose research also focuses on sign languages added that ‘there are even some smaller community sign languages where there are only a few signers, but there is language variation across the individuals. So, it’s really important to research these sign languages so we can learn more about linguistic diversity, language use and perspective in the communities.’

Image courtesy of Kelly Shoecraft 

Deaf people in a hearing world:

When asked about the difficulties Deaf people face, Riona replied, ‘the difficulties Deaf people face day-to-day are that we do not feel disabled unless we are in a situation that is not in respect of our abilities, exclusive and inaccessible. Deaf people who are culturally diverse and established with their own identity don’t feel the disabling components in their own communities at all.’

Cathy says, ‘the biggest issue is access. Access to what is being said, all of it, not just shortened versions, but immediate access – not later, not delayed and understood only after everyone has stopped laughing!’ What people don’t understand is the amount of energy required from a Deaf person. ‘A Deaf person has to integrate into a hearing world, the Deaf person is putting in all the effort, the concentration, the constant brain energy filling in blanks, trying to guess what is being said when you can’t hear’.

Cathy also mentioned the challenges even when Auslan Interpreters are present – ‘this does not mean that access is provided and fully equal, it’s not. Often this is the assumption though and the hearing presenter or staff meeting proceeds as usual – no breaks, no pauses to allow Interpreters and the Deaf persons to catch up and often there is no check in if the Interpreters are able to keep pace.’

There can also be challenges within families for Deaf people, where the deaf family member is often excluded from communication. Cathy talks about her ‘older brother who sports an untidy beard that makes lipreading him very difficult, who when I ask him what is being spoken he will repeat ‘I just told a joke” but not elaborate what the joke was – even with prompting. He still yells at me also – no matter how many times he has been told. Deaf people will often share how time with family is actually the worst days of frustration, sometimes even with interpreters present. Of course, all families are different, though these are common feelings’.

Riona highlighted challenges for children who are deaf or hard of hearing, stating the evidence shows that children who are raised bilingually (spoken language and sign language) show better language acquisition in school. Unfortunately, hearing parents of deaf children (91% of the time) do not use sign language to communicate. Classroom policies do not adopt this approach either: ‘In 1880 the Milan Teacher’s Conference excluded sign language/linguist specialists. The Conference approved that only oral language teaching methods should be used to teach deaf children.’ This ban on sign languages caused considerable degradation of Deaf Culture – their sign language and their human rights.

Image, Cathy Easte, courtesy of Kelly Shoecraft

Tips for communicating with people with a hearing loss or who are deaf. 

  1. Always face a deaf person. Make eye contact and keep it while you are talking.
  2. Check noise and lighting, e.g., when you stand in front of a bright light, you appear black.
  3. Keep your distance so the deaf can see all of your upper body for body language.
  4. Speak clearly and steadily – do not yell, do not exaggerate.
  5. Take turns.
  6. Repeat and re-phrase if necessary. Do not show impatience, sigh or look frustrated.
  7. Write it down – ask them first if they would like to write it down, don’t assume.
  8. Smart device –  auto translate captions speech to text.
  9. Be mindful of what time of the day that you plan a meeting or an event – deaf fatigue is real, and an aspect of mental health and wellbeing.
  10. MOST IMPORTANTLY:  Ask them what works for them, do not assume! Sometimes what you think is not always inclusive despite your best intentions, it may be harmful to the deaf person so please ask them what works best for them to be included in the activities, workshops, and training.

Learning Auslan:

Cathy advocates for more people to learn Auslan: ‘Auslan is a beautiful expressive language, poetic and so relaxing. More people need to learn Auslan, it needs to be a first choice in schools – it is an Australian Language. Our First Nations people understood this and they too have their own sign languages – when all the community knew the signs also – so they could communicate with the deaf of their community. I saw this in action when I visited the Goulburn Islands in West Arnhem many years ago. It was beautiful to see a deaf person not segregated from her community but fully included.’

This image is courtesy of the Langwich Podcast

Additional information:

  • If you are interested in learning Auslan, take a look at Deaf Connect and the courses on offer.
  • For more information about International Day of Sign Languages, visit the United Nations website
  • Listen to Langwich Podcast for 2 episodes on documenting sign languages: Discussion with Dr Sam Rarrick entitled ‘Documenting sign languages’ and discussion with Lisa Petersen entitled ‘A deep dive into sign languages’.

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